A Saturday evening visitor to Dolores Park, lingering among the empty Modelo cans and rosé bottles, grows gradually aware of a couple of things. They may notice the fog that has subtly crept over the hills, or realize that a post-brunch cocktail has somehow taken six hours. The keenest of observers will notice something mysterious happening across the street, near the corner of 19th. On a recent Saturday, a strange procession occurred at that spot, filing into the nondescript Victorian at 573 Dolores: first a sportif lesbian couple, then an ironic mustachioed bro, followed by a homeless vet and several men in anachronistic brown robes. Was this something World of Warcraft related? An Aleister Crowley study group? Yet another cleverly conceived Burner project in development? Nope.
Inside the house, charcoal was being lit in an incense burner, vestments were being laid out, and an octogenarian monk was sprinkling a liberal dose of tarragon on a gargantuan tray of raw chicken breasts as the brothers of The Society of St. Francis prepared for their weekly Community Night. Every Saturday at 6 p.m., the four monks (properly called friars) who live in the San Damiano Friary hold a hauntingly beautiful service in their austere chapel, and prepare a dinner for all and sundry. “We are always glad to welcome people here on a Saturday night,” says Brother Robert Hugh. “It’s a wonderful cross section, really; it’s something to which very conventional people and very unconventional people come, and they’re all equally welcomed.”
I first visited a Community Night at San Damiano in 2005 with my friend Jesse Lebus. At the time, Jesse and I were both members of The Episcopal Church of the Advent in Hayes Valley and had recently discovered a mutual love of ’90s hardcore bands. In his native Louisville, Jesse had grown up playing music with the guys from Rodan and Sebadoh and was a righteous dude in every conceivable sense. After years of making art, living in various intentional communities, and engaging in some pretty illicit stuff, he was on the hunt for a more fulfilling life. Around that time, he discovered the San Damiano Friary and became a habitual hanger-on. We would occasionally stop by on the way to The Attic, or on the way back from an evening meditation at Advent. There were always brothers hanging out in the living room, talking to ever-present visitors.
In spite of the matching medieval outfits and shared life, there was nothing cultish or brain-washy about the community. Instead, the house was always pervaded by a genial jokiness and real goodwill. Over time, Jesse got more and more involved in the community, and eventually decided to join the order. In 2007 he took the name Brother Maximilian Kolbe and left SF for Little Portion Friary, the Society’s house and retreat center on Long Island. I’ve since become an Episcopal priest and continue on as an occasional visitor and friend of the community.
Monks are all about two things: loving God and loving their neighbors. For the Episcopalian Franciscans at San Damiano, this translates to a lot of time in church and a lot of time in homeless shelters, soup kitchens, rest homes, gay rights rallies, AIDS hospices, and countless other progressive, world improving activities. Each brother also has a day job, and does just enough work to keep the community fed and the lights on. To chase that paper, Brother Jude sees patients in his psychology practice, Brother Robert Hugh leads spiritual retreats, and Brother Mathias works at The Sanctuary, a homeless shelter in SOMA.
A recent Saturday night found Brother Jude preparing to celebrate Mass, Brother Mathias dashing about making arrangements to accommodate the expected horde of guests, and Brother Robert Hugh manning the grill. Robert Hugh is a stout Englishman well into his eighties who retains a rakish bonhomie, and is a joy to be around. After earning his BA at Cambridge and attending graduate school at Oxford, he spent the 1950s serving as a priest in the bleak, industrial North of England. In the midst of Britain's swinging ’60s, he gave up his possessions, took vows of poverty, obedience, and chastity, and joined the Society.
I asked him the obvious question – chastity? Really? Giving up relationships for life? “I took a vow of chastity, not because sex and relationships are bad; in fact, they are very good things,” he explained. “But in order that I can experience and share another good: chastity allows me a huge freedom to be available to other people.” Having no partner and no kids means that you have no one person to value above everyone else. The brothers’ goal is treating all humanity as if they were family. “In the community, our commitment to one another as brothers is very strong, but when we are confronted with an immediate and urgent human need, everything becomes subservient to addressing the needs of our neighbors,” Robert Hugh explained.
Brother Mathias is the newest member of the household, having been transferred from Long Island in December. He’s slight and shy, and ebulliently good humored. Asked about his decision to become a monk he jokes, “I’m not trying to sound like Martin Luther King, but I basically joined because I had a dream – the same dream, over and over, night after night, about being a monk – for months.” When he started looking at different religious orders, the dreams went away. “It just seemed like something I needed to listen to, and I’m certainly glad I did.”
Mathias is a great one for all things domestic, and his devotion to painting, plastering, and pruning is second only to his passion for the Lord. He is also encyclopedic in his knowledge of organs. We spent a bit of time at the console of a 1905 Moller organ at a nearby church, and after attacking the keys with a shaking Bach fugue, he explained all of the giant machine’s mysterious moving parts.
Brother Jude joined the order in England as a young man and was transferred to San Francisco in the ’90s. Jude is a man of boundless energy. He trained in Zurich as a Jungian analyst, and has an active psychology practice, primarily seeing patients with very low incomes. Much of Jude’s days are filled by his duties as Minister Provincial, the head of the Society in the Americas. Jude also spends his nights walking the streets of the Tenderloin, the Mission, and the Castro as part of the San Francisco Night Ministry, an interdenominational group who are on the streets to offer assistance, conversation, and love to the poorest of the poor every night of the year from 10 p.m.–4 a.m.
Astonishingly, Jude also finds the time to rebuild and repair a vast number of antique clocks. When I ask where he finds the time to sleep, he quips, “They’ll be plenty of time for sleep when you’re in Heaven, Father Bertie,” as he dashes out the door.
The four brothers and their two current live-in guests survive on a food budget of $50 a week, supplemented by donations of leftovers from friends, as well as the occasional dumpster diving expedition, but they love to share what they have. Robert Hugh explains, “You get used to the notion of being grateful for everything – even if it’s the rest of society's leftovers, and that’s a very different mindset from the secular world.”
Drop in to the San Damiano Friary any Saturday night at 6 p.m. for a service, a bite, and to get to
know the bro’s.